Intervention: Help a loved one overcome addiction

An intervention can motivate someone to seek help for alcohol or drug abuse, compulsive eating, or other addictive behaviors. Discover when to hold one and how to make it successful.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

It's challenging to help a loved one struggling with any type of addiction. Sometimes a direct, heart-to-heart conversation can start the road to recovery. But when it comes to addiction, the person with the problem often struggles to see it and acknowledge it. A more focused approach is often needed. You may need to join forces with others and take action through a formal intervention.

Examples of addictions that may warrant an intervention include:

  • Alcoholism
  • Prescription drug abuse
  • Street drug abuse
  • Compulsive eating
  • Compulsive gambling

People who struggle with addiction are often in denial about their situation and unwilling to seek treatment. They may not recognize the negative effects their behavior has on themselves and others.

An intervention presents your loved one with a structured opportunity to make changes before things get even worse and can motivate someone to seek or accept help.

What is an intervention?

An intervention is a carefully planned process that may be done by family and friends, in consultation with a doctor or professional such as a licensed alcohol and drug counselor, or directed by an intervention professional (interventionist). It sometimes involves co-workers, clergy members or others who care about the person struggling with addiction.

During the intervention, these people gather together to confront the person about the consequences of addiction and ask him or her to accept treatment. The intervention:

  • Provides specific examples of destructive behaviors and their impact on the addicted person and loved ones
  • Offers a prearranged treatment plan with clear steps, goals and guidelines
  • Spells out what each person will do if a loved one refuses to accept treatment

How does a typical intervention work?

An intervention usually includes the following steps:

  1. Make a plan. A family member or friend proposes an intervention and forms a planning group. It's best if you consult with a qualified professional counselor, addiction specialist, psychologist, mental health counselor, social worker or an interventionist to help you organize an effective intervention. An intervention is a highly charged situation with the potential to cause anger, resentment or a sense of betrayal.
  2. Gather information. The group members find out about the extent of the loved one's problem and research the condition and treatment programs. The group may initiate arrangements to enroll the loved one in a specific treatment program.
  3. Form the intervention team. The planning group forms a team that will personally participate in the intervention. Team members set a date and location and work together to present a consistent, rehearsed message and a structured plan. Often, nonfamily members of the team help keep the discussion focused on the facts of the problem and shared solutions rather than strong emotional responses. Do not let your loved one know what you are doing until the day of the intervention.
  4. Decide on specific consequences. If your loved one doesn't accept treatment, each person on the team needs to decide what action he or she will take. Examples include asking your loved one to move out or taking away contact with children.
  5. Make notes on what to say. Each member of the intervention team describes specific incidents where the addiction caused problems, such as emotional or financial issues. Discuss the toll of your loved one's behavior while still expressing care and the expectation that your loved one can change. Your loved one can't argue with facts or with your emotional response to the problem. For example begin by saying "I was upset and hurt when you drank…"
  6. Hold the intervention meeting. Without revealing the reason, the loved one is asked to the intervention site. Members of the core team then take turns expressing their concerns and feelings. The loved one is presented with a treatment option and asked to accept that option on the spot. Each team member will say what specific changes he or she will make if the addicted person doesn't accept the plan. Do not threaten a consequence unless you are ready to follow through with it.
  7. Follow up. Involving a spouse, family members or others is critical to help someone with an addiction stay in treatment and avoid relapsing. This can include changing patterns of everyday living to make it easier to avoid destructive behavior, offering to participate in counseling with your loved one, seeking your own therapist and recovery support, and knowing what to do if relapse occurs.

A successful intervention must be planned carefully to work as intended. A poorly planned intervention can worsen the situation — your loved one may feel attacked and become isolated or more resistant to treatment.

Consult an addiction specialist

Consulting an addiction professional, such as an alcohol and drug abuse counselor, social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist, or interventionist, can help you organize an effective intervention. A substance use or addiction professional will take into account your loved one's particular circumstances, suggest the best approach, and help guide you in what type of treatment and follow-up plan is likely to work best.

Often interventions are conducted without an intervention specialist, but having expert help may be preferable. Sometimes the intervention occurs at the professional's office. It may be especially important to have the professional attend the actual intervention to help you stay on track if your loved one:

  • Has a history of serious mental illness
  • Has a history of violence
  • Has shown suicidal behavior or recently talked about suicide
  • May be taking several mood-altering substances

It's especially important to consult an intervention professional if you suspect your loved one may react violently or self-destructively.

Sep. 26, 2014 See more In-depth